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1940s Archive

An Alphabet for Gourmets

continued (page 3 of 6)

But the thing that really mattered, that piped the high, unforgettable tune of perfection, was the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I thought three basic requisites, according to Fannie Farmer and Escoffier…and again I thought of Sydney Smith, who once said that his idea of heaven (and a cleric!) was pâté de foie gras to he sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night, too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell…

Q is for quantity…

…and for the Case of the Hindu Eggs, as well as the case of some people, many of them gastronomical as well as human, who honestly believe that if a recipe calls for two cups of butter it will be twice as good if they use four.

If a classic recipe asks for one teaspoon of bechamel or one teaspoon of soy sauce, these mistaken searchers for the jewel of perfection will double the dose, and in doing so wreck themselves. The ones who thus continue assaulting the palates of their intimates deserve, rather than mercy, a good stiff lecture on the pleasures of the table as opposed to wounds of an outraged tongue, and if that fails, they should be quite bluntly crossed off the gastronomical list.

There is no hope for a cook who will not learn his own as well as other gourmet’s limitations, and a man who has one good bechamel by rote, one good minestrone, or one good Yat Gai Mein, and then goes on to make impossible ones because of his lack of balance, of perspective, and of plain common sense and modesty is, to be blunt again, past recall.

Of course it must be added here that many a clumsy amateur who early believed in all good faith that enough of a good thing could never be too much, has later turned into a chef of subtlety and breeding, just as many a man who later learned to judge the points of a setter has, in his first dog-days, his own early puppyhood, picked out a male hound because he was big, or a bitch for her pretty eyes. It takes some people a long time to realize that there are rules which have filtered into our life-patterns in a near perfect state…just as it takes other people to act as a kind of yeast, forever questioning these rules or others like them, in rich rebellion.

Gastronomical precepts are perhaps among the most delicate ones in the modern arts. They must, in the main, be followed before they can be broken: that is, I can do something with five given ingredients that Escoffier perhaps never dreamed of, but in order to do it well I must follow his basic rules for white stock, glaze, and poaching, which he and all his kind perfected in a grueling devotion to their métier.

A rebuttal to this hidebound theory could be that gastronomical accidents often give birth to beauty: a chef forgets the fried potatoes, pops them out and then into the fat, and has pommessoufflées! Another cook adds a raw yolk quickly to a portion of scrambled eggs when be finds it is to serve two people instead of one, and has a new nutlike flavor on his conscience and his reputation. There are uncountable anecdotes of such chance discoveries. Basically they have nothing to do with the fact that certain rules must be followed in order to reach certain results, in the sublime chemistry of food. They must, as Brillat-Savarin pointed out in his quasi-solemn little lecture on the art of frying, spring from a knowledge of natural laws.

My own rude forcing in the school of obedience to them came, perhaps fortunately for myself and certainly with great good luck for my intimates, when I was about nine.

I had already learned to follow recipes and could, I say now with a somewhat smug astonishment, make pan gravy, blancmange, jelly roll, and suchlike requisites to my maternal grandmother’s diet, and a few stolen delicacies like mayonnaise which we ate hungrily when she went away to religious conventions. I felt at home in the kitchen, at least on the cook’s day off, and could poach eggs with the best of them, atiptoe on a needlepoint footstool beside the gas range.

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